In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11). This sounds easy to say but much harder to live. How can we be content in a time of COVID-19, when normal life has been suspended? When we’re surviving in a time of crisis, and no one knows when it will end? Yes, Paul knew what it was “to have little” and “to have plenty” (4:12) but “Hold on!” we might say to him, “You never lived through COVID-19! You don’t know what it’s like to be totally isolated, cut off from friends and family, work routine and everyday life! We can’t leave the house, we can’t travel; we can’t go ANYWHERE!”
But where was Paul when he wrote this letter? Actually, he was more isolated from friends, family and work than most of us will ever be. Paul was imprisoned (1:7, 13–14, 17), cut off from his family, and from colleagues and brothers in ministry like Barnabas and Silas, Apollos and John-Mark. The great missionary apostle – renowned for traveling through the Mediterranean world to preach the gospel and establish churches – was now in chains. He had no Zoom, no email, no smartphone; just letters taken in and out of prison. Yet, he does not despair. On the contrary, Philippians contains more references to joy than anything else Paul wrote.
While Paul is in prison, his thoughts are focused outwards. He writes that the Philippians are “in my heart” (1:7) and he “yearns” for them with the affection of Christ (1:8). Paul is imprisoned; the Philippians are free, yet Paul prays for them; not for his own difficult situation (1:3–11). But, perhaps the greatest surprise of all comes in verse 12 of this chapter, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.” In his time of social isolation, lack of routine, and inability to travel, the great apostle sees new opportunities to reach a different audience with the good news of Jesus. Firstly, the whole imperial guard, his jailers, have come to know about Christ because of his chains. Secondly, it has spurred on his Christian brothers and sisters; making them bolder to fearlessly proclaim the good news (1:13–14).
During this time of COVID-19 we have all faced considerable challenges and restrictions on our daily lives. But this new situation has also created new opportunities. We’ve all been made aware of how fragile we are. In this anxious climate, many have spoken of friends and family members becoming more open to the gospel. Churches are boldly posting worship services, devotionals and sermons online; there are more ways for non-Christians to access Christian content than ever before. How could we help those who are struggling? How could we, as the people of God, witness to a world that is scared and confused?
What was Paul’s greatest hope and expectation as he faced the possibility of death (1:20–23)? To get out of prison? No, his greatest desire was to leave this life and be with Christ (1:23). Yet more than anything, he wants to honor Christ and live for him (1:20–21). He models the self-emptying, other-centered example of Christ (2:3–8) so it would be better for the Philippians if he remains alive to serve them.
In this time of COVID-19, that suggests that true contentment is not in our circumstances but how we make use of them. How can we serve the global body of Christ in this time, starting right where we are? OMS seminaries are forced to train leaders online, often with meager funds, little training and inadequate technology. How do our brothers and sisters in parts of Africa and Asia “meet” online, without our resources, where electricity is unreliable, if they have it at all? Take a look at the OMS website for ways you may be able to serve the global church and the cause of world mission, even today, even from home:
Perhaps the great apostle Paul could be content in such circumstances, but how can I? Yet, Paul goes on to explain the reason for his contentment; a source available to all of us: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (4:13) If we yield ourselves fully to him, we can receive this strength and know his peace (4:7). Paul still remained in prison. We remain in isolation for now. But we can be content in the Lord who strengthens us.P